Chicago’s Top Cop Pushes for Tougher Sentences for Repeat Gun Offenders

Chicago’s top cop traveled to Springfield to push for an enhanced gun sentencing law, though criminal justice experts say the change won’t effectively stem the tide of violence in the city’s South and West Sides.

With 767 murders in the city last year – 767 “individual tragedies” and “families in grief” – Chicago Police Department Superintendent Eddie Johnson says Illinois needs to make the law tougher on repeat gun offenders: Specifically, people caught multiple times carrying a gun when they shouldn’t, be it because they don’t have, or don’t qualify for, the appropriate permit and concealed carry license.

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Click for a larger image.Click for a larger image. If someone is found guilty of illegal possession of a firearm for a second time, they’d currently go to prison for between three and seven years; under Senate Bill 1722, the sentence would typically be double that.  A judge would maintain discretion to hand out a lesser sentence.

Superintendent Johnson told a Senate committee Thursday that offenders are in and out of prison so quickly, they “see no reason to change their behavior.” He says criminals are watching to see if lawmakers stiffen penalties, because now “they don’t fear our judicial system.” 

Johnson told a Senate criminal law committee Thursday that a tougher gun possession law will help to create “a culture of accountability.”  

But criminal justice experts say Johnson’s plan could do more harm than good by putting people who possess a gun (but haven’t actually pulled the trigger) into an already overcrowded and overburdened prison system, where they’ll eventually emerge with fewer job prospects and likely without having received rehabilitation services.

Illinois Justice Project program director Sharone Mitchell Jr. says 91 percent of shootings in Chicago don’t result in arrests.

“If we’re not dealing with actually arresting the people who are committing the shootings, then why… how can punishment solve that, right?” Mitchell said. “So really we need to be thinking about how are we going to arrest the shooters. And this bill doesn’t help us to arrest any more shooters. It’s not a penalty to have the shooters serve more time. It’s completely unrelated. So there are some things that we need to do before this if we really want to solve violence.”

In an effort to build support for the measure, the gun possession sentencing guidelines were paired with other changes to Illinois’ criminal statutes.  Among them: A reduction in the penalty for certain drug possession charges, expanded eligibility to drug probation, vocational, re-entry and other rehabilitation programs and shorter mandatory supervision periods upon release.

These changes are roughly on par with recommendations from a task force formed by Gov. Bruce Rauner to surmise ways for Illinois to bring down the state’s prison population by 25 percent by 2025, and were added to the legislation to bring recalcitrant legislators on board.

Instead, Republicans on the criminal justice committee all voted against the plan, saying linking the two initiatives “muddies the waters.” Several senators said that given the suburban heroin epidemic, they won’t support tempering drug sentences.

Johnson also says the drug amendment makes him “uneasy” given that, he says “the drug trade is what drives the gang violence in Chicago.”

The measure narrowly passed out of committee, but Democrats did advance it further due to expected negotiations with the governor’s office.

Rauner aides would only say that they’re reviewing the legislation.

Under Rauner, the prison population has so far declined by 9.1 percent. 

Follow Amanda Vinicky on Twitter: @AmandaVinicky

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